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2013: The Year in Beer

The new calendar adorning your cubicle wall confirms it: it’s a season for reflection.  With 2013 done and dusted, DC Beer writers and contributors have had ample time to think back on the highs and lows of this past year (and recuperate from New Year’s festivities).  To add to the great pieces already penned on the topic, here’s our take on the most significant beer news of 2013.

DC IS A GREAT BEER TOWN

Chris Van Orden: In 2013, I think any questions about DC's status as a beer town have been laid to rest (as Jake and Nick so thoroughly detailed).  Lots of new venues, including some great breweries and brewpubs, and a higher bar for craft beer knowledge from the general populace.  We continue to be a great market for breweries to test the waters, especially in terms of esoteric styles.

LOCAL BREWERS ARE ESCHEWING TYPICAL FLAGSHIP STYLES

CVO: I love that regional breweries are looking beyond the typical flagships - more kellers, more barrel-aged stuff (mmm...Harvester), more revitalized styles (hat tip to Stein and Union on Barleyweiss, one of my summer go-to's).  There's always a place for a well-made IPA, but I definitely appreciate that I can find a local version of so many styles now.  

Mike Stein: Thanks for shouting me out there, CVO... In all seriousness, I love our scene and the "challenges" the brewers have been issuing each other simply by stepping up their game and increasing the quality of local beer. Saison, Berliner, Flanders Red, Grisette, Alt, Pilsner. These all used to be difficult to find in the DC market. Well, you could find a "pilsner," but not the kind that Lost Rhino, Port City, and Mad Fox are cranking out. And soon we had Dupont, 1809, and other world-class beers.

Jacob Berg: I echo Chris and Mike's comments about the variety of styles being made locally. It's great to see. 

Nick Rakowski: I want to double down on the point that Chris made. Not only are breweries realizing that they can move away from the 'typical' flagships, but they're also throwing the concept of the flagship by the wayside and letting the market pick favorites from their best beers instead. In the DC market, you no longer need an IPA to act as a feeder for your more innovative beers. Instead, you can do what you do best, and the DC market will recognize it and celebrate it. The paradigm is shifting to where successful breweries lead with one more 'approachable' beer for those newer to craft (e.g., 3 Stars Peppercorn Saison), but still have great success with more nuanced, unique, or bolder offerings. Right Proper opened with a grisette. A GRISETTE. 

THE COST OF BEER IS TOO DAMN HIGH

Jake: Per Bill's state of the union for DC Beer Week, and Aaron's take on growlers in the City Paper, the price of beer, both pints and growlers, is too damn high. Especially local beer. All the more reason to throw accolades at Right Proper. I hope that both local and national competition are able to move prices downward as breweries compete for draft lines, but I'm not holding my breath. 

Josh "JP" Perry: Price: $13 for a 6 pack is beyond stupid. $10- $12 a 10 oz pour, stupid. Right Proper and Bluejacket are now making the case that $5 full pours of really delicious beer can be done. With that said, I know they are supplementing their income with food, but still. Growler prices at the breweries are pretty spot on; those at "retail" stores are WAY off and just don't make sense. 

Bill DeBaun: One thing to keep in mind is that Right Proper and Bluejacket don't have distributor costs to increase the price of their beers. In general though, this "the market will bear it" philosophy is short-sighted. In addition to having beers that are approachable and exciting, it's important to remember that cost needs to be inviting too. Growing craft beer has economic obstacles in additions to those of style and taste preference.

LAGERS, HISTORICAL BEERS, AND BEYOND?

Stein: If I had to comment on one thing that caught my eye this year that I know will continue into 2014, that is the tradition of well-made lagers. Light lagers, dark lagers, pils, (even ales that were lagered: alt, Kolsch, rheinischer bitter). I don't know if it will happen before the end of 2014, but I think it would be incredible if every single #DCbrews brewery made a dark lager. I'd love to see a half-dozen DC breweries/brewpubs that together make a range of styles like Baltic Porter, Czech Dark Lager (Tmavy), Dunkel, Schwarzbier, Vienna, and Garnet. Lager on!

JP: I fully agree on the lager tip, but don't think that will happen for a good while. Lagers inherently take time and tank space as well as technical skill to get it right the first go.

John Fleury: I have to agree with JP on lagers. I love me some lagers, but no one in DC has the space or tank time to go that route in my opinion. It is one of the hurdles of brewing in DC, and it will continue as rent is too damn high.

Nick: I know I'm biased because I have a Mike Stein poster over my bed, but I feel like there has been a steady rising interest in 'historical' American beers. American craft brewing was for the longest time about creating something new and innovative in reaction to the decline of US beer culture. Now that we're embracing craft beer at large, we're able to look back not just to our recent 'reactionary' history, but to the unique beer culture that existed in the US prior to prohibition and the 'Great Consolidation' of the post-Prohibition period. I think we'll see more and more interest in rediscovering the original US beer culture and, in turn, tasting many of the styles that were brought here from Europe and modified to fit particular localities (Oh dat Barleyweiss, though. Good god.)  

David Slentz: The area seems to really be embracing the idea of table beers, beer pairings, and the like.  When I went to a New Holland beer dinner back in 2006, large format bottles were very rare (at least in Michigan).  The brewer told me he would like to see more beers being passed around the table.  I think that really occurred this year around area restaurants.  Outside of drafts, a lot of places now have beer lists just like they would have wine lists.  Some of the NRG restaurants had specials where particular large format bottles would be on special.  I am thrilled to see how shared, higher-priced bottles can continue to be a part of the dinner experience.

Fleury: I love the embrace that the city, and the country as a whole, has taken that fruit beers are no longer those things that are "girly" or somehow less of a beer. For so long, fruit in beer was looked down upon as somehow it sapped the masculinity from all who drank it and their opinions no longer counted. I feel that is definitely a remnant leftover from macro-swill mentality where somehow that 4.5 abv adjunct lager was manly, but that 9% yet beautifully delicate Belgian strong with fruit was immature or *gasp* girly. I feel this change in mindset has partially come about by the innovation of brewers incorporating fruit into beers in many different styles embraced by the new American craft drinker: IPA, stouts, and saisons. But more importantly, is the means by which they are used. Fruit isn't added to mask flavors or reach a new demographic not picked up by the non-fruited beer. Craft brewers are incorporating fruit to complement flavors in beer and create new flavors to expand what we think of as beer and create an expression that works in conjunction with the flavors already in the beer. Not a mask to a boring beer but a showcase in which an already great beer can become something different, and perhaps more than the sum of its grist bill parts.

FEWER GIMMICKS

Jake: I was very impressed with all the CBC collaborations. I usually view those as gimmicky, but the rye lager from Brau, DB, and Brewer's Art; Yonder Cities from Brau and Union; and the rye gose from 3 Stars and Oliver Ales were all beers I'd love to see again. 

David: I am glad that I was beaten to the idea of gimmicky beers.  I didn't have an articulate way to identify the gimmicks ideas, but my first item was that there seemed to be less gimmicky beers.  There weren't a lot of extreme hop bombs, barrel aging for the sake of itself, or lowest ABV possible.  More breweries seemed to be more locked into their sweetspot.  This is also an allegory to the variety of styles seen locally. 

AVAILABILITY

JP: One of the greatest things is the Whole Foods P St. Happy Hour and growler fills. Yes, this ties back into price, but also the ability to buy out of market stuff and keep the prices low. I would like to see the distributors step up their game in this to increase the scope and lower the cost overall, but also to get things from the left coast we all want. Russian River goes two hours north of us and there is no reason why we shouldn't be able to get that on tap. (I understand the fallacy in my argument).

Bill: I think one of the struggles we're going to start seeing in 2014 is too much availability. I wouldn't be surprised to see some breweries pull out of the DC market in the next year. Yes, we're a good testing ground with a seemingly limitless base of both disposable income and thirst for craft, but there are also only so many tap lines and, frankly, people, in this city. We keep having more and more brands move into the market, and the competition is going to get fiercer and fiercer. Hopefully this means a survival of the fittest/best situation emerges. With that said, RussiaN River wouldn't have any trouble getting tap lines in the city.

BEER FAN DOESN’T MEAN BEER SNOB

Nick: There are now many more variations of the beer nerd. It used to be the "beer nerd" (wants to know as much as possible about beer and share it with you), the "beer snob" (wants to tell you again about how he drain-poured that Dark Lord because it 'wasn't drinking right'), and the "casual craft drinker" (orders the occasional craft beer, still thinks blue Moon is actually craft). Now there are so many more opinions and nuanced points of view to work into those generalities. People who care only about local beer. People who balk at the business of craft beer (C&Ds, anyone?). People who buy into hyped beers. People who mock hyped beers. The list goes on. There are so many different segments and pockets of knowledge and opinion that never existed before simply because the scene wasn't big enough to support those opinions on a larger scale.

HOMEGROWN HEROES – LOCALS AND WOMEN

David: I have been thrilled to see that the area has created "homegrown" producers.  The pace setters are people who have made a name for themselves in the area.  Greg Engert from Rustico to Bluejacket, Thor Cheston from PP (and Beck) to Right Proper, and many others.  We not only have a great culture, but 2013 exposed the fact that the area has largely built that culture from the ground level.

Fleury: I really love that in 2013, beer has been taken storm by the women. No longer are they the wheat beer drinkers, the sweet beer drinker, the fruit beer drinker (as if they ever were?). They are the beer drinker. Nothing more and certainly nothing less. They are the homebrewer, the event organizer, and the discussion leader. Women are the brewers, the industry insider, the brand rep reaching out to new drinkers all over the area. 2013 seems like the year where women took rightful ownership of their place in the beer community and proved they are people be judged on their knowledge and passion for beer and nothing else.

Nick: I love what John is saying about women in beer. Well said and about damn time. 

DC CIDER DOT COM

Fleury: I know this is about the year in beer. But as a passionate cider lover for years, seeing so many stubborn beer drinkers put down the beer and pick up the cider was truly an eye opening experience. Part of the problem has always been the US's lack of cider. Most cider here is marketed to be a substitution for the alcopop branding -- trying to reach people who don't care about flavor but wanted to drink. And that was indicative in many of the ciders that US drinkers know: cloyingly sweet, one-dimensional, and bland. These were not the flavors any craft drinker wanted. But through the push of craft beer, the traditional ciders of Northern France, the Basque region of Spain, and the Western Counties of the UK slowly started getting imported. And in conjunction with a locavore movement here in the states over the past few years, true ciders creeped their way into the market and into the hands of craft drinkers looking for something different than beer, but of equal quality to their beloved craft. 

In 2013 it is hard to find a beer bar in the city that doesn't carry a quality cider. Some have many ciders. CK, Pizza Paradiso, Meridian Pint/Smoke and Barrel all carry a number of local and international ciders and are even having cider events and dinners. Next year no doubt will bring even an increased focused on cider in the craft community. Maryland's Millstone has been working with a number of brewers and bridging the gap with some of the best cider in the area. Abermarle and Foggy Ridge in Virginia are already showing up all over town, and I think a number of other cideries are poised to take our market by storm. Per usual, I'll be there welcoming them with open arms. 

EDUCATION IS FUNDAMENTAL

JP: This year I attended a lot of highly technical seminars and dinners and found that people are really interested in these kinds of things. The Blind and Bitter was a great example of this and feel that a quarterly tasting with a focus on a certain ingredient or component would be really cool.

So what were your big takeaways for beer in DC In 2013? Let us know in the comments or tweet using the #dcbrews hashtag. We'll be back Monday to recap some of our favorite beers of 2013!

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